Curtis Orchestra shows their mettle in adventurous program
Conservatory concerts are intriguing things—often they offer us a glimpse at what concert life might look like if artistic choices were not driven by ticket sales. On Monday night at Carnegie Hall, the Curtis Symphony Orchestra gave an adventurous and peculiar program of Busoni, Berio, and Mahler in which Mahler’s “Titan” Symphony almost seemed dwarfed.
“Almost,” of course, is key here. Mahler’s First is a big piece, tough to overshadow when played well, and the performance of the Curtis orchestra under guest conductor Ludovic Morlot was commendable, if not quite outstanding. The winds could have used a little extra tuning, especially in their opening statement, but on the whole the playing of the orchestra was polished and powerful. These musicians showed themselves capable of thrilling vigor, producing a gruff, gristly sound in the scherzo and a stinging fury at the start of the finale.
Quite often, though, a mechanical feel crept into their playing, as in the third movement’s funeral march, or the lyrical sections of the last movement. A lack of detail in phrasing and articulation left a somewhat aimless feeling—not a surprising phenomenon in a conservatory orchestra, where constant turnover makes maintaining a consistently seamless ensemble exceptionally difficult. When fully committed, this orchestra was capable of being completely charming, which they demonstrated most clearly in the clever, sly, even tipsy klezmer band section in the third movement.
More exciting on the whole was the music of the first half, not least for the novelty of the programming. Ferruccio Busoni’s Berceuse élégiaque is hardly what one would expect from a composer best known today for a catalogue of transcriptions for piano. This is an odd piece, an intriguing assemblage of sound delicately constructed over a repetitive arpeggiated figure. The unease created at the start by lurking cellos and basses dissipates, but a claustrophobic tonality remains, made all the more intense in this performance by the bristling sound of the strings. One might have asked for a little more sense of adventure from student conductor Conner Gray Covington, whose reading felt at times superficial, simply trotting out each figure in succession. Still, the precision with which he led the orchestra was impressive.
The work with the most powerful impact was Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia, a monster of a piece that gives the audience little room for emotional rest. Sinfonia calls for eight vocal soloists, all amplified. For this performance, they were seated behind the strings and each connected to a speaker on a single channel, creating a disembodied voice effect while maintaining spatial perspective. This wasn’t the only game played with the speakers—it seemed as though the pitched percussion located stage right was miked and connected to a speaker stage left, disorienting any listener watching closely.
Sinfonia is much more than just electronic gimmicks—for a piece that so emphatically focuses on creating sonic effects (and employs a rapid, free-associating text), there is a remarkably clear sense of structure. Under Morlot’s direction the music never felt lost or lacked direction, even in passages such as “O King,” a formless, keening lamentation for Martin Luther King punctuated only by sharp interjections from the instrumentalists.
The third section of the five is in many ways the crucial one, and not only for its position or its length. The music here is the most fascinating and perplexing of the entire cycle, explicitly quoting familiar works in a naked attempt to trick the listener into feeling comfortable. Over the spinning fantasy of the orchestra the text is babbled and shouted, as though the orchestra is providing incidental music for an absurdist theatrical piece. For all the grins that the combination induced, it was a profoundly unsettling experience, brought to vigorous life by the Curtis musicians. You’d be hard pressed to to find a major orchestra to give a more compelling performance of this bizarre and demanding work.